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Digital Savant: The Internet is full of fakers — here’s how to avoid them

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The Internet, you may have noticed, has a bit of a truth-telling problem.

As the rate we put out and take in information has sped up, our natural detectors for the stuff that smells like it came out of a bull have not adapted quickly enough to the misinformation, bait-and-switching and straight-up scamming of the Internet.

It’s kind of a mess.

But how can you tell what’s real and what’s fake? Did that slightly racist political email your distant relative passed on to you (and 50 others) have any truth to it? What about those 10 new buxom Twitter followers who appear to have hit hard times, given how little clothing they appear to be able to afford? They’re real, right? Should you click on the emailed link from a friend telling you to “CHECK THIS OUT!” even though that friend hasn’t emailed you in years?

Unfortunately, most scams, misinformation and fake online accounts aren’t as easy to spot as the old spam emails from a supposed Nigerian prince offering to share his inheritance. Even though I spend a good chunk of every day battling bad information online and double-checking the validity of what I see and share, I still get fooled sometimes. It gets worse in hotly contested election seasons and right before holiday shopping ramps up, when everybody is hoping to spot too-good-to-be-true retail deals.

Nevertheless, we mustn’t give up. We must be smarter and a little more suspicious. Here’s what I know about sidestepping the manure.

— By email

Liars and scammers are usually quite unoriginal. If you receive a crazy-sounding email that seems untrue, copy a chunk of the text and paste it into Google. You may find it’s a mass email that’s been circulating for years.

You could also check websites including Snopes.com, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com to look up specific claims. All are nonpartisan. Snopes in particular is good for general myth-busting, not just tall tales related to politics.

As for general emails, beware anything that has a subject line like “Someone made a video about you!” or “(Name of someone you know) wants to share a secret” with only a link in the body of the message.

Even if the email address or name of the sender is familiar, it’s possible your friend’s email account was hacked and that you’re receiving dangerous links to viruses and malware. If it seems suspicious, delete the message and try to alert your friend that he might have been hacked.

Emails from banks or money-centric services like Paypal are often faked. Some red flags: misspellings, a copyright date that’s not this year, a lengthy return email address and anything asking you to fix credit card information. Before clicking on any link in an email like this, hover over it or right click and copy/ paste it into a document file to see where it’s trying to take you. If it’s not the official website (paypal.com, bankofamerica.com, etc.), it’s probably fake. That kind of attempt to scam you via email is called “phishing,” and you don’t want it to happen to you.

— On social networks

Fake news spreads quickly through social networks. Beware posting about celebrity deaths until they’ve been confirmed by legitimate news sources (and even then, use caution).

Don’t retweet or otherwise resend information that seems dubious and that you haven’t checked or at least read yourself. Sometimes a misleading or truncated headline can give a story a whole different meaning.

Fake accounts are sometimes tough to spot, but beware of accounts with profile images that look like porn stars or models or accounts that are missing a photo entirely. Twitter accounts with no followers that are following thousands are likely fake. Be suspicious of social media accounts that post nothing but inspirational quotes or generic jokes or where every fifth or sixth post appears to be an advertisement.

Blocking and reporting fake accounts and ignoring friend requests from people you can’t confirm as real are good steps to protect your social media accounts.

— On the web

The website Fake a Wish allows visitors to create fake celebrity death stories under the heading “Global Associated News.” (A recent example: “Eddie Murphy Dies in Snowboard Accident.”) These often get posted around the web by people who don’t bother to scroll to the bottom of the site, to see the “THIS STORY IS 100% FAKE!” disclaimer.

Always check the bottom of a dubious website to see whether it has legitimate copyright information or at least a link to tell you more about its ownership.

Don’t shop at websites that you’ve never heard of or that seem too good to be true. McAfee’s SiteAdvisor, free software for browsers and mobile devices, is one tool to make sure sites you visit are trustworthy.

And take reviews of restaurants and products with a grain of salt. Sometimes, people who post reviews have an ax to grind, and there’s even been a popular practice of posting bizarre fake reviews on sites like Amazon.com for innocuous products for comedic effect.

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